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Old Solutions: U.S. DOT’s Proposed Strategic Plan Falls Short

Andy Clarke is the president of the League of American Bicyclists. This article originally appeared on the League’s blog.

On Tuesday, August 27th the U.S. Department of Transportation released a draft strategic plan for public comment. The 94-page document lays out how the U.S. Department of Transportation proposes to manage our transportation system for the next five years — guiding the work of some 57,000 federal employees and heavily influencing some $205 billion of annual spending on highways in this country.

Unless the "new generation" is going to look like this, maybe U.S. DOT should put some different ideas in its five-year plan. Photo: Cycling Savvy

The comment period closes September 10. (You can read our comments on the draft strategic plan here.)

The bold title of the plan, “Transportation for a New Generation,” suggests some exciting changes and a new direction… and the numbers are certainly there in the plan to back up a decisive new transportation strategy. Consider:

  • 32,367 people were killed in traffic crashes in 2011
  • Driver behavior causes or contributes to 90 percent of crashes
  • The economic costs of traffic crashes –- in 2000 -– was $230 billion
  • One-third of Americans do not drive
  • The U.S. population is expected to increase from 310 million in 2010 to 335 million in 2018 and 439 million by 2050
  • Traffic congestion creates a $121 billion annual drain on the U.S. economy
  • The average American adult aged 25-54 drives 12,700 miles a year and spends one month in his or her car each year; and each car costs $7,658 to buy, maintain and operate
  • Cars and trucks are responsible for 83 percent of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, which are 27 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have increased 21 percent since 1990 — 60 percent of that increase is due to transportation.

That all certainly points to the need for a new direction in transportation –- these problems are huge, the costs are staggering, and we’ve got $205 billion annually to spend on highways alone to do something about these problems.

Alas, that’s not what “Transportation for a New Generation” offers. Not at all.

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Will Obama’s Transportation Jobs Plan Avoid Funding Sprawl?

USDOT has made public the breakdown of President Obama’s $50 billion plan to create jobs through transportation infrastructure investment. The administration says: “It will put people to work upgrading 150,000 miles of road, laying/maintaining 4,000 miles of train tracks, restoring 150 miles of runways, and putting in place a next-generation air-traffic control system that will reduce travel time and delays.”

Obama announcing the American Jobs Act. Photo: SHRM

Specifically, they lay out the numbers:

  • $27 billion for rebuilding roads and bridges
  • $9 billion for repairing bus and rail transit systems
  • $5 billion for projects selected through a competitive grant program
  • $4 billion for construction of the high-speed rail network
  • $2 billion to improve airport facilities
  • $1 billion for a NextGen air traffic control system

It’s encouraging to see the words “upgrading” and “rebuilding” when it comes to roads, indicating that the administration might be adhering to a fix-it-first approach to transportation spending. But, as we mentioned last week, the bridge Obama highlighted recently as a prime target for jobs-bill money isn’t actually in need of repair — transportation officials just want to widen it to allow more traffic to go through faster.

Certainly, the administration has shown a desire to attack the maintenance backlog in the country, but that doesn’t guarantee that highway expansions and sprawl projects won’t get a slice of the “rebuilding” pie.

That said, it’s good to see the plan includes $5 billion for projects funded through a competitive grant program (think TIGER). And it also hits a somewhat more equitable balance between rail/transit and roads than Congressional transportation bills generally do.

The president’s plan also includes an infrastructure bank, funded with $10 billion seed money. The administration says projects will be evaluated on the basis of how badly they’re needed and how much they would help the economy.

Some have said over the last couple of weeks that the I-bank concept is in trouble after the GOP pounced on the Solyndra loan story, in which a solar company filed for bankruptcy soon after receiving half a billion dollars in government-backed loans. Experts say the infrastructure bank proposal would vet projects well and protect taxpayers from risk.

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Absent a Transportation Bill, DOT Can Innovate All On Its Own

As Deron Lovaas said this morning on NRDC’s Switchboard blog, “If recent events are any indicator, it might take Congress a while to agree on a policy that will put our underfunded, inefficient, oil-dependent transportation program on the right track.”

It's working in San Francisco. Now USDOT can help expand dynamic pricing to other cities around the country. Image: SFMTA.

Well now, that’s an understatement.

Between the uncertainty of the supercommittee and the bicameral bickering over the size and length of a bill, the only thing we can be sure of is that we’re heading toward yet another extension of SAFETEA-LU when it expires at the end of next month – if the two parties can agree to even that. Negotiations broke down over a whole lot less recently, when Congress let the FAA shut down over a measly couple million bucks.

But even if it’s a while before we see legislation passed that enacts new policies, there’s a lot the USDOT can do with existing authority to make smarter transportation investments that reduce congestion and carbon emissions. NRDC has documented them in a new report, “Federal Actions to Reduce Energy Use in Transportation” [PDF].

  • Dynamic pricing. Fifteen states are participating in the DOTs Value Pilot Pricing Program, which allows states more flexibility in levying tolls and other pricing measures. San Francisco’s innovative new parking pricing system is a fruit of this program. Other variable pricing measures, like congestion pricing, could also help reduce fuel use and pollution, says Lovaas.
  • Realism. USDOT should enforce the fiscal constraints of regional long-range transportation plans, being upfront about realistic costs. Lovaas says this will address a “pet peeve” of his and force states to reconsider “costly highway projects that have been on the books forever.”
  • Transit benefits. Without further authority, USDOT could expand and promote the transit benefit program, which allows companies to give employees $240 per month in tax-free transit and vanpool benefits. Lovaas says the program is currently run by the IRS without any DOT involvement, and is vastly undersubscribed.

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SFMTA Launches SFPark to Much Fanfare and Political Support

Mayor Ed Lee and SFMTA Chief Nat Ford demonstrate the iPhone application for SFPark. The first screen displayed is a warning not to check your device while driving. Photos: Bryan Goebel

San Francisco launched the world’s most innovative parking pilot today, a federally-funded trial that promises to revolutionize the way cities manage and price metered curb parking. SFPark will make it easier for motorists to find spaces in busy commercial districts, while reducing congestion, speeding Muni, and improving air quality and safety for bicyclists and pedestrians.

The milestone for SFPark was celebrated at a packed press conference in the North Light Court at City Hall this morning. SFMTA Chief Nat Ford was joined by Mayor Ed Lee, parking guru and UCLA Professor Donald Shoup, and other dignitaries to announce the SFPark iPhone application and real-time parking availability data.

The demand-based parking pilot is being implemented over the coming months, covering 7,000 of the city’s 28,800 metered spaces and 12,250 garage spaces. Drivers, thanks to street sensors, or magnetometers, will be able to check their iPhone application (an app will be available for Android in the coming weeks), or computer, to get real-time data on the availability and cost of parking spaces in 15 commercial districts.

“How many of you have been dumb in your past? How many you have acted dumb? I know I have,” said Mayor Lee. “You know, when you’re driving around looking for a parking space and you’re double parking and you’re running around trying to see whether something will open, you’re dumb.”

“We want to be less dumb about this, and that’s why I’m so happy to launch today’s pilot program, SFPark,” Lee said. “That’s going to be our San Francisco version of congestion pricing.”

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San Francisco to Start Smart Parking Management Trial Soon

Using the new credit-card enabled parking meters. Photo: SFMTA

The central principle of San Francisco’s cutting-edge parking management program, SFPark, comes right from Econ 101. If there are more people looking for parking than there are parking spaces (i.e. demand is greater than supply) adjust the price of parking until there is enough turnover on a given street, or roughly one free parking space per block. Sounds simple in theory, right?

On the other hand, implementing the principle in real-world conditions at over 6,000 curbside parking spaces and 11,500 off-street spaces in city-owned garages is very complicated. The federal government, which has paid for most of the program with approximately $20 million in grants, wants proof that San Francisco can meet its stated goals of reducing traffic and speeding up transit with smart parking management. That will require copious data and extensive analysis.

Most importantly for parking managers at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), they want the public to like it. If a driver doesn’t get to a parking space quickly, thus reducing the cruising for spaces that generates up to 40 percent of local traffic in some cities, then the program won’t deliver on its goal. Similarly if drivers aren’t happy with the convenience of the new meters or other payment options, like pay-by-phone.

Jay Primus, SFPark’s manager, understands the significance of his work and has been spending most of his waking hours for the last three years at work or conducting outreach with businesses, politicians and community groups.

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State Transpo Officials Push to Toll for Maintenance, Not Just Capacity

Last week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told state DOT officials gathered at an AASHTO conference in Washington that he was all in favor of tolling – but only to add new capacity.

Iowa DOT Director Nancy Richardson wants tolls to pay for maintenance, not new capacity. Photo: Iowa DOT

“We believe in tolling,” LaHood said. “You can raise a lot of money with tolls. If a state comes to us with good plans for tolling, yes, we’ll be responsive to that… as long as you’re building more capacity. That’s really what we’re going to look at.”

As state transportation officials struggle with state of good repair, they are beginning to chafe at the federal restriction that allows tolling only for new capacity – not maintenance or other needs.

“The argument always is, we shouldn’t toll for reconstruction because we’ve already paid for them once,” said Iowa DOT Director Nancy Richardson in an interview with Streetsblog. “But we’ve paid for them and we’ve used that value. Now it’s time to reinvest.”

She says maintenance, or “stewardship”, is a much higher priority for her state than capacity — to the point where she considers spending all of her funds on stewardship.

We probably have about 75 percent of our money going to that now. But our system has taken such a beating in the last five years because the weather has been so dramatic – both winters and flooding – so we’ve seen accelerated deterioration and costs over the past five or six years, without revenues going up significantly. Our bang for the buck is less. So we have to look, like all states, to see if we have to almost completely shift our funds to maintenance, or stewardship, as we call it, rather than capacity.

Secretary LaHood admitted, when asked, that the Federal Highway Administration had rejected tolls for Pennsylvania’s I-80 because the tolls were going to be used for “other things” besides new capacity.

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California High Speed Rail Central Valley Corridor Gets Federal Grant

Image: CAHSRA

Image: CAHSRA

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced $2.4 billion in grants for high speed and commuter rail projects around the country today, including $900 million for various portions of California’s rail network and High-Speed Rail project.

US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood compared the initial investment in high-speed rail networks across the country under the Obama Administration to the Interstate Highway system under President Eisenhower starting in the 1950s. The highway system, writes LaHood on his blog, “is the life-blood of American commerce and mobility.”

“Every vision this nation ever realized began with a few courageous steps,” LaHood continues. “If we put off high-speed rail by saying it will take too long to build, then it will never happen. Now it’s time for another bold step. The America I grew up in didn’t just happen. Our nation’s progress was only made possible through the imagination, investment, and hard work of those who came before. And I’m proud that, today, we’re adding to that legacy with President Obama’s commitment to high-speed rail.”

The federal money is being spread across various high-speed rail corridors from Florida to Illinois to Seattle. John Robert Smith, the CEO of national transit non-profit Reconnecting America, commended the Obama administration for the grants and also compared the initiative to the Interstate Highway system.

“A national high-speed rail system is not only an opportunity to redefine how we travel and how our regional economies grow, it represents the type of innovation and progress that can guarantee another century of growth and prosperity in America,” Smith said in a statement.  “It gives people a choice in how they travel, something polls have shown Americans want.”

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Obama Admin Will Make Its Transportation Push During the Next Congress

President Obama is “going to throw his support behind a six-year reauthorization of the transportation program” in Congress. That was the word today from Roy Kienitz, who represented the Transportation Department today as he testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

U.S. DOT's Roy Kienitz said that in some cases, federal funding should support reconstructing bridges to work for more than just cars. Concept for bike-ped path on Cleveland's Innerbelt Crossing: GreenCityBlueLake.

In a meeting with transportation reform advocates last week, Secretary Ray LaHood indicated that the administration’s proposal will drop early next year. Today Kienitz tipped his hat to the reform community in describing the goals the administration has in mind:

The first thing you have to do is name your goals if you want to make sure you’re pursuing them… Our strategic goals are pretty simple: economic competitiveness, safety, state of good repair of the existing system, environmental sustainability, and community livability.

Today’s hearing was about financing, however, and Kienitz acknowledged that the path toward those lofty goals is a little complicated. But he did give some hints about what the administration’s thinking. He said U.S. DOT is trying to foster a financing system that does a better job of matching the project to the need:

Some places they propose a transit investment, in some places we have to rebuild the bridges that already exist but configure it differently, whether it’s for bicycles, pedestrians, cars, or transit. Other places we need to invest in highway capacity – but that should be case by case. [emphasis added]

Kienitz also stood up for allocating funds without the constraint of formulas based on different modes of travel: “Right now… a highway dollar is only a highway dollar, and a transit dollar is only a transit dollar.” He said a project like Los Angeles’ ambitious transit expansion requires more money with more flexibility.

So he’s beating the drum for higher funding levels, and for finding a way to pay for it, and for doing it soon. “Given the economic situation right now,” he said, “it seems appropriate to frontload a significant share of that money, and we have suggested the first $50 billion to be made available as soon as possible.”

But “as soon as possible” looks to be at least four months away. Congress is already itching to get out of town, and leadership could adjourn the session as soon as tomorrow night. A lame-duck session after the election will deal with tax cut extensions and some other urgent matters. Big new initiatives like these will have to wait until the new Congress gets sworn in — one that will have a much different look if Republicans make the gains they’re hoping to make.

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Applications for TIGER II Funding Overwhelm What U.S. DOT Can Dish Out

For every dollar awarded from the U.S. DOT’s TIGER II grant program, there are more than $30 that applicants are asking for but won’t be getting.

The Tucson Modern Streetcar project was awarded $63 million in the first round of TIGER funding. (Image: Tucson Regional Transit Authority)

The Tucson Modern Streetcar project was awarded $63 million in the first round of TIGER funding. (Image: Tucson Regional Transit Authority)

That’s the word from the DOT, which announced on Friday that it had received about $19 billion in applications for nearly 1,000 projects “from all 50 states, U.S. territories and the District of Columbia.” The volume of applications, which range from “highways and bridges to transit and ports,” far exceeds the $600 million available in TIGER II funds.

States competing for TIGER II money need to show that their transportation projects will have significant economic and environmental benefits at a city-wide, regional, or national level. Since the money is awarded at the discretion of DOT using set criteria, not disbursed through the rote formulas that govern most transportation funding, it’s been a catalyst for innovative transportation projects.

David Burwell, a co-founder of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, isn’t surprised at the overwhelming response to TIGER II. “It shows the enormous interest states have in discretionary money,” he says. “With formula money, states will tell you, ‘That’s our money; we don’t have to do anything for formula money.’ Offer discretionary money and they’ll do backflips.”

According to Burwell, who now heads up the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the volume of TIGER II applications indicates that state DOTs are willing to reform their focus on highways, but they want something in return for the reforms they make. “Otherwise they’ll spend all their money filling potholes and keeping bridges from falling down,” he says. In other words, if you want states to make real advances on transit and smart urban design, you have to give them some incentive.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made a similar point in last week’s announcement. “The wave of applications for both TIGER II and TIGER I dollars shows the back-log of needed infrastructure improvements and the desire for more flexible funds,” he said in a statement. According to the DOT, the appetite for TIGER II funds is not quite as ravenous as it was for TIGER I, when the department got $60 billion in applications for $1.5 billion in available grants.

This time around, TIGER II includes a partnership between the DOT and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to disburse planning grants. $35 million in TIGER II funds will combine with $40 million from HUD to pay for transit-oriented development. In another sign of the closer collaboration among federal agencies, two other departments – Agriculture and the EPA – are getting in on the action too, helping to evaluate the planning grant applications.

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Will the Next Merit-Based Transpo Program Rock Harder Than TIGER?

Experts are still trying to make sense of President Obama’s $50 billion plan for infrastructure spending, announced on Labor Day and later characterized as an upfront investment on a larger, multi-year transportation bill. More than a hundred people gathered at the Brookings Institution last Thursday looking to learn more about where the administration and Congress might go from here.

“First and foremost is how does all this dovetail with the reauthorization of the multi-year surface transportation law that now expires at the end of this year?” asked moderator Rob Puentes of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, laying out the unknowns. “The President called for $50 billion. Is that just for an infrastructure bank? Is that the front-loaded part of this multi-year law? Is it both?”

The panel didn’t have answers to every question, but a few themes emerged. First, enthusiasm for a national infrastructure bank is strong among the transportation reform community, which sees it as a vehicle not only to jumpstart investment, but to select projects based on merit and strategic goals like economic competitiveness and reducing carbon emissions.

Polly Trottenberg

Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy Polly Trottenberg. Image: Brookings

The second is that administration officials are still fine-tuning the policies and programs they want to see in the next transportation bill. Polly Trottenberg, assistant secretary for transportation policy at U.S. DOT, said she wants to adjust the way her agency distributes competitive grants. She called the TIGER program too reactive — letting states and regions propose isolated projects and then choosing the best among them. She’d rather have more latitude to help regions start broad new reforms. DOT, she said, is looking to the administration’s education grants program, Race to the Top, for inspiration. They’re tentatively calling the transpo version “Wheel in the Sky” (yes – like the Journey song) but Trottenberg didn’t seem to think that name would stick.

As for that 800-pound gorilla… the question of financing the transportation program is still, well, a question. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) suggested that some form of user fees, whether congestion pricing or mileage taxes, would be necessary — and politically feasible if the public sees that the money will be well-spent. “It is the public understanding of this which will help to bring the politicians along as well,” DeLauro said. “We need real public education on this issue of what infrastructure means to you personally.”

To make her point, she looked to the Los Angeles transit funding ballot measure known as Measure R, which voters passed in 2008. “The Mayor of Los Angeles went to the public,” she said. “The people of Los Angeles said yes, they were willing to spend a half-cent more on a sales tax in order to get the benefit of this very visionary transit system.”

Every panelist agreed that the administration is going to have to sell its infrastructure program as a wise investment, no matter what. Said Michael Greenstone of Brookings’ Hamilton Project, “If there’s greater confidence that the money is being spent on the high-payoff projects, I think that would loosen some of the political support for funding these.”